Another Thanksgiving Day was drawing to a close, ushering in the joyful but hectic weeks of preparation for Christmas.
Given a choice of before-bed snacks, our 7-year-old daughter selected a slice of applesauce cake and milk. Expecting to share the moments with everyone present, she was understandably disappointed when her grandfather asked her to eat somewhere else because the table was being used for a card game.
She did not protest, but left the room rather solemnly and without her food. I followed her into the living room and found her lying face down on the sofa, quietly crying.
"I wish I had a gun!" she said resolutely, yet with sadness in her voice.
When I asked if she wanted a toy gun, she told me no - a real one.
"Because I want it to happen," she sobbed.
Worried, but not wanting to make matters worse by reacting with panic, I questioned Betsy calmly about her feelings. Had they started recently?
"No, I've been having these feelings for a long time. I tried to make it happen before," she said, and her words sent a shock wave through my body.
A little coaxing soon brought her mood up, but in the weeks that followed there were many other emotional upsets that triggered tearful admmissions that, for Betsy, life was a hurtful existence.
Her gloom seemed to accelerate as the weeks went by. My husband and I discussed each sign of depression and each incident of obvious emotional turmoil in detail. We knew that children who talk about suicide should be taken seriously. Betsy told us that she had tried to take her life at least three times. Although she obviously had never gone far enough to do actual physical harm to herself, it was clear that she was preoccupied with the notion of ending her life, and that she was experimenting, at least in her mind, with ideas on how it could be done.
I once broke a light bulb. She offered to help me pick up the pieces, but I refused her help, telling her she might be badly cut.
"Could you die from being cut on a piece of glass like that?" she questioned.
"No," I told her, "Not unless you were cut in a bad place." Her reply sent a chill down my spine.
"You mean like a place that goes bump-de-bump?"
Once, at my office, she asked if the building had a stairway to the roof. I asked why she wanted to know.
"I was thinking I could jump," she replied quietly.
Little upsets more and more often became major threats to her well-being and ego. Once, during a particularly frightening encounter with the demon which had robbed her of her self-confidence, she confessed to being afraid of me, looking at me wildly as though I were some stranger not to be trusted.
Even her small works of art brought home from school had taken on a macabre appearance. I remember a chalk drawing done on black construction paper. The only objects on the paper were three graveyard headstones. Each bore the initials of one of us.
Each time her emotions ran rampant, I tried to dig deeper into her feelings. I did not want to let go of the idea that showing her my concern and how much we both loved her would overcome her fears and help her to cope with her doubts. But my efforts were to little avail.
I asked if she thought she might feel better talking to someone else about her problems.
"Yes," she answered.
"Who do you think could help?"
"A psychologist," she said without hesitation.
The precociousness of her reply did not surprise me. Vocabulary and communication had always been Betsy's strengths, and we had marveled at her youthful awareness and outstanding memory. Impressing other two- and three-year-olds with words like "ferocious" had been easy for her.
But now she talked of "feeling strange inside" and "being afraid." The ferocious beast that haunted her small body could not be conquered alone.
The weeks of sessions with the pediatric psychiatrist went by slowly, and we became restless with the snail's pace with which such therapy must proceed. We were at a loss to understand what had suddenly overcome our bright, articulate, gregarious little girl.
Within a short period of time, Betsy became uncooperative with the doctor. We grew impatient. Eager to find an alternative, or at least an adjunct to the counseling, my mind was almost constantly occupied with thoughts of what could be done.
Perhaps that is why I recalled a girlfriend talking about a kind of food program that had been helpful in improving her children's behavior, attitudes and moods.
I had listened politely, questioned her, and had even spoken to a couple of pediatricians about the possibility of our daughter showing evidence of this hyperactive syndrome. But I was told that hyperactive children are destructive, out of control, terrors to live with, and unable to function very well.
And besides, they reassured me, hyperactive children were almost always boys. None of these adjectives fit our daughter.
Or did they? Oh sure, she had always been very active and had slept very little as an infant. She would not sit to ride in a stroller, making shopping trips into exhausting chase scenes. But young children always have more energy than their parents can tolerate. I believed she was just a normal, frisky toddler.
Had I fallen for all the cliches? The issue here was not hyperactivity, but depression; a feeling of hopelessness severe enough to make our only child want to cease to live. If there was any chance the Feingold diet could help her through this and restore her emotional stability and tranquility, I had to at least try it.
My husband was skeptical and Betsy was distressed. "I don't want to be on a special diet. I just want to be normal!"
Her words were like needles, piercing me throughout.
Despite her initial objection, Betsy was remarkably cooperative. Only six days after beginning the diet, I saw the first visible signs that something was changing.
That evening, just after dinner, our daughter put her head in my lap and fell asleep. She took a nap, that's all, just a nap. This is something most parents take for granted, but it was the first time I can remember Betsy actually being calm and at peace.
We began to observe other changes as well. She no longer showed a low tolerance for frustration, poor concentration, inability to accept small disappointments - all symptoms listed in the Feingold Handbook.
The change in Betsy's personality has been dramatic. From the moment I first noticed the obvious improvement in her mood and physical control, to this day, Betsy has not looked backward. Our child's depressions have become only a bad memory, for us and for her.
The day following her initial change to serenity, our 7-year-old announced that she did not ever want to go off the Feingold diet. She hasn't.
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